Considering Oak Trees

Most of the trees directly around my house are oaks. They’re happily mingled with maples, white pines, a few birches and hawthorns. Two or three ash trees are still standing, too. But I’m especially thrilled and comforted by being close to so many oak trees. 

I’m not sure why. Maybe it has something to do with the magnificent oak that cast refreshing shade over the farmhouse where I spent so many childhood summers. Maybe it’s visceral memories of happy summer hours on the swing my grandfather hung in that tree for me. 

Or maybe it was the hundreds of historical novels I’ve consumed since I was that girl on that swing. Their settings often involved oak trees, especially the novels set in England, where the oak stands as a symbol for all that is long-lasting, noble, strong and good. 

Whatever the roots of my affection for oaks, I was stunned to read that the now-fallen roof of Notre Dame Cathedral contained wood from 52 acres of them. It’s said that some of those trees were close to 400 years old when they were felled.  The timeline for the Notre Dame’s original construction was 1163- 1345 CE. Depending on when the trees were felled, some may have sprouted from acorns that fell before Charlemagne’s rule as first Holy Roman Emperor, 800-814 CE. All of the oaks used in the cathedral roof were growing tall when his dynasty ended in 987.  

The feeling I had as that fire burned and those timbers fell reminded me of words from Dan Groat’s “An Enigmatic Escape: A Trilogy. “The bones of the oak tree that had stood … during my youth were scattered about the ground, pieces of the skeleton of a majestic life that had passed while I was off growing up and old.” 

As of this writing, no decisions have been made yet about what materials will be used in the new roof, or what blueprint the builders will follow. If wood is used at all, we still won’t be free to recreate all the preparations given to the wood that burned. The first phase of preparations to fit the wood for its purpose took more than twenty-five years. That involved aligning the wood with the energies of the earth, as well as a process to keep out fungus and insects. After the oaks were finally cut into beams, the wood was considered fit to use only after it dried for another quarter-century. Can you imagine the outcry if the people trusted with reconstruction recommended these steps? 

Outrage and incomprehension would be the milder responses. We expect the cathedral to be rebuilt within, or close to, the currently proposed fifteen years. We’ve lost not only the cathedral roof, but also the world-view that allowed for its creation in the first place. We as a people have lost the sense of what it meant to live like forest people. We’re too individualized for that, even me and the other folks who live in a little New England town that was originally almost named Green Woods, Massachusetts.

That’s less a complaint than a pained observation. We’re people of our own time and place, and throughout history, that gain has always implied loss. But all is not lost. We‘ve lost almost all of the trees that sprouted when Maine was still part of Massachusetts, but we still have forest, and we still have oak trees.

Just in case you’re also perched somewhere in a forest containing hardwoods, or near a park containing deciduous trees, I’m tossing out a challenge. It starts like this: carve out time to get into the woods. Begin to notice the oak trees. Take a field guide with you if you like, especially if you go out when the leaves are down. That’s when identification depends on the bark and shape of the tree itself.

Start close to home and stop when you find your first oak. Spend some time with it. Go back again another day, spend more time with it. Some other day, find another oak. Repeat the process again. And again. Notice how they’re the same, and notice their differences. Notice how you feel when you’re with each one. Risk really seeing them.

None of us are going to notice as many as the 1,200 – 1,500 oaks it took to create the first Notre Dame roof. Please don’t try. But any of us who do take up this challenge will inhale riches of consciousness just as precious as oxygen. 

And many of us will catch a glimpse, right here in the 21stcentury, of the best motivations of the craftspeople and other cathedral builders  who dedicated themselves to a project they’d never see completed. We might begin to experience a little more of the pleasure that comes from being happily involved with non-human lives both larger (the oaks) and smaller (the acorns) than our own. We might find a peaceful place within the community of beings who came before us, live with us, and will out live us – if not the individual oaks, then the forest herself. 

And, who knows? That might very well begin to rub off on our relationships with ourselves and with each other.

originally published online on Fired Up! ezine Climate Change issue, May 2019